West Midlands students visit Auschwitz
Reporter Will Oliphant joined 200 teenagers from across the West Midlands on an emotional trip to Auschwitz designed to ensure the horrific acts to which it bore witness will never be forgotten. [photo gallery]
More than 60 years after the end of the Second World War, I’m standing on the train platform at Birkenau wondering how it could have been allowed to happen.
It’s very easy to look at the Holocaust as a page in history and to think of Auschwitz as just a word, especially when you’re sitting at home watching a documentary on the television.
Then you suddenly realise you’re standing at the station where 1.2 million Jews, gypsies, gay people, Russians, political prisoners and other Nazi non-desirables spilled dazed and confused into the light.
With the flick of an SS officer’s hand, they were either condemned to immediate death in the gas chamber or sent to the horror of the labour camps.
That’s why the Holocaust Education Trust has brought me here along with 200 sixth-form students from around the West Midlands. The message is very simple: we must never forget the enormity of the atrocity.
That fact was brought home to us all very early in the day-long trip to the death camps when we visited the nearby town of Oswiecim. An educator from the trust asks students why they think the gates of a Jewish cemetery there would be locked.
The answer. Vandalism? No. Remaining prejudice? No.
There’s simply no-one left to visit the graves. The last Jewish man to live here, a survivor of the holocaust, died here in 2000. The local Jewish population were either eradicated or didn’t want to return.
At Auschwitz students walk under the entrance bearing the sign Arbeit Macht Frei, which means "work will make you free", before being taken on guided tours of the barracks where the prisoners were kept.
Here we’re shown items stripped from prisoners. Piles of glasses, suitcases and mountains of human hair cruelly shaved from the heads of prisoners by the Nazis and used to make clothes and fabric.
But despite these shocking sights, for me it wasn’t until we got to Birkenau, the overflow camp for Auschwitz, that the reality of the place hits home.
The desolate landscape with endless ruins of huts and sheds used to keep the mainly Jewish population is both humbling and chokingly sad.
Students around me are obviously affected as soon as we arrive at the place. People talk in hushed voices despite being out in the open.
Alex Taylor, from King Edward Camp Hill School for Boys, said: “I feel quite drained. Some of the things we’ve seen have been stomach turning. It brings it so much closer to you when you’re here seeing it.
“It’s hard to understand how human beings could have done this to each other. It reinforced what I had thought about the place. But you can’t really appreciate it fully until you’ve been here.”
Fellow King Edward student Vicky James added: “It was different to what I expected. It was really upsetting. It gave me a whole new insight into what the people and particularly the Jewish people suffered here.
“Walking through Birkenau, looking at the train tracks, seeing the buildings and seeing the guard tower which is so familiar at the end of the camp can’t help but make you emotional.”
As dusk falls the students are brought to a memorial site between the crematoriums where above the gas chambers the bodies of victims murdered here were burned.
Rabbi Barry Marcus – one of the men behind the trust’s plans to bring students to Auschwitz – reads a prayer in Hebrew over a hushed crowd of students. This is no ordinary school trip.
He adds a final thought for people to take away with them.
“If we were to have a moment’s silence for every person who died here during the holocaust. We would have to be silent for four years.”
It was recently revealedin a survey that many British schoolchildren though that Auschwitz was the name of a religious festival, a country or even a beer.
For these students the word Auschwitz will forever bring home memories of this day.
* Some of the students on the visit to Auschwitz were from King Edward VI High School for Girls. Here, Alison Young, Saranne Moule and Jessica Ostrowicz give their account of the experience:
Six a.m. at Birmingham International airport and quietly, amidst the crowds of sixth form students awaiting the flight to Poland, Rabbi Barry Marcus dons his prayer shawl, faces Jerusalem and rocks gently as he says his prayers. The day begins as it will end with reflection and reverence. The assembled students, whatever their religion or lack of it, are united by common cause: they have come to see and to see for themselves. The Holocaust Educational Trust has chartered a plane for a one day visit to Krakow in Poland. Our destination: the infamous Nazi death camp of Auschwitz Birkenau.
Nothing can prepare you for a visit to Auschwitz. You can read all the literature you like, watch all the documentaries. Nothing compares to the stark reality of a place designed as a killing factory.
The visit begins in the Polish town of Oswiciem (the Nazis named it Auschwitz). Pre-war the town was 52% Jewish and in the cemetery we see the evidence of what had once been a large and vibrant community. Even in this place the Nazis wrought destruction and desecration, removing the gravestones and using them for paving. If you have no respect for the dead and try to eradicate even their memory then what chance do the living have? We all deserve the privilege of a natural end to our lives and we all deserve to rest in peace.
At Auschwitz 1 (the ‘mother camp’ – does anyone else sense the absurdity of this descriptor?) brick built barracks used to house first Polish political prisoners, then Roma and Jehovah’s Witnesses, then Jews. The cruel irony of the insignia above the entrance: ‘ARBEIT MACHT FREI’ of course, work never did make you free, unless you were released by death. In the ‘Punishment Block’ the students struggle to understand how further punishments could be necessary in a place like Auschwitz. Reverent silence at the ‘Death Wall’ where so many prisoners were shot and in the gas chamber where the first ‘experimental’ gassings were carried out.
At the satellite camp of Birkenau, built specifically to end the lives of up to a million Jews, first the watchtower made famous by ‘Schindler’s List’. Train lines leading to death. In this place, a flick of the wrist meant life or death. To the right and you were ‘selected’ for work and therefore life. To the left and almost immediate annihilation. Last sightings of loved ones. Last desperate shared moments.
Our visit ends with poetry and psalms. How else to carry the weight of feeling?
We have seen and witnessed.
Memorial candles light the train tracks in the fading light. We walk to life and to freedom remembering, in silence, those whose final journey brought them to this place.
240 students whose lives will never quite be the same again. 240 people who know that freedom and the ability to value difference and diversity are precious gifts. The work of the Holocaust Educational Trust is, indeed, important work.
Alison Young, Saranne Moule, Jessica Ostrowicz. King Edward VI High School for Girls.